Rounding the marina with the top down, I can actually hear pedestrians gasp. One well-dressed blonde exclaims “ooh-la-la”, like a cartoon French vamp.
A young bearded man greets me “Monsieur Homie!” from the sidewalk. Tourists turn away from the shiny superyachts and aim their cameras at my car. The Rolls-Royce Dawn is not a vehicle for shrinking violets. And Saint Tropez isn’t the place you come to hide.
The Hotel Byblos was to be my destination; a cluster of fishermen’s style houses, like a village within a village. The scene of Mick and Bianca Jagger’s wedding party and the lion’s share of glamour on the Cote d’Azur ever since, the Byblos is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and has invited all its friends.
Jack Nicholson holding court in its notorious nightclub, Les Caves du Roy; Grace Jones sliding down the banisters; Elton John at a poolside piano; Naomi Campbell reclining on the terrace. Google the pictures and then look up from your phone; nothing has changed, just a fresh lick of paint for the hotel and a nip/tuck for the guests. All are growing old (dis)gracefully.
The 563bhp Dawn cruises round the snaking roads that lead through rosé vineyards, the Plaine des Maures, and lush green canyons towards the continent’s most fashionable and enduring playground. This is as serene as motoring gets; leather the colour of cottage cheese, pearlescent paint sparking in the sun, and the Spirit of Ecstasy guiding me along the corniche.
The V12 purrs silently, the transmission is aided by satellite, the steering cosily light to the touch; the experience is relaxing and satisfying. It’s impossible to be unhappy while driving this car. It feels otherworldly. It gives you an out-of-body experience where you imagine watching your journey projected onto the silver screen.
I had driven the 900 miles direct from London and despite spending 12 hours at the wheel I arrived more refreshed than when I’d started, positively springing from the backwards-hinged suicide door and onto the Pampelonne beach promenade.
With red ochre, terracotta and pastel yellow facades jostling for a place in the sun, 100-year-old plane trees in the Place des Lices where elderly locals still play pétanque, turquoise pools that pepper the landscape, and the lapping of the sea, Saint Tropez could be mistaken for an ordinary Provençal town were it not for the gin palaces, exotic automobiles, designer boutiques and manicured mansions.
It first found its verve when painters and writers, from Picasso to Cocteau, made it their home after the war, drawn by its tranquility, charm, and the alluring light. In 1956, Roger Vadim shot the film And God Created Woman here, burnishing its sex appeal. Brigitte Bardot became not only Europe’s ‘it’ girl but Saint Tropez’ most famous resident. And it was with her that the story of the Byblos begins.
Hotelier, collector and bon vivant Jean-Proper Gay-Para was madly in love with Bardot and he built the Byblos in an attempt to woo her. He promised to create a palace worthy of the Arabian Nights unique to the Mediterranean coast, and he named it after an ancient port in his native Lebanon. He commissioned ceramics sculptor Jean Derval to make a mosaic depicting the abduction of Europa by Zeus as the emblem for the hotel. If you want to create a place with mythical allure, turn to the Greeks.
For their wedding night in the summer of ’71, Mick and Bianca hired the Byblos’ biggest suite; 180 square metres directly over the swimming pool. To celebrate the hotel’s anniversary, Missoni has decked out this suite with its furniture and signature striped linens. Other luxury brands have joined in the festivities, including Audemars Piguet, Goyard and Dom Perignon, all releasing special Byblos 50-branded editions. The most valuable and ambitious of these collaborations by far, though, is the one with Rolls-Royce.
The £430,000 Dawn B50, in bespoke two-tone tangerine and silver, is the ultimate ode to exclusivity, luxury and the sense of mischief that characterizes the Byblos, its paintwork aping the hotel’s fruity shades. This special edition is limited to one. Timeless glamour is something Saint Tropez and a convertible Rolls-Royce share, and the Byblos is the place to park it. The B50 is a love letter to the original jet-set.
I’ve brought a backseat passenger; a bright pink inflatable flamingo. The car upon which the Dawn is based, the Wraith coupe, has a ghoulish noir character but this convertible has an altogether sunnier disposition. It’s romantic rather than intimidating; it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Saint Tropez’s marina is its natural habitat, not least because of its nautical lines.
Its seductively long and tapered rear was inspired by J-class America’s Cup yachts, and the acre of handsome wood behind the rear seats is reminiscent of a Riva’s decking. The veneer-less ‘Canadel’ paneling with diagonal grain on the dash, the doors and central console give it a youthful vivacity that’s almost Scandinavian; it’s the antithesis of stuffy.
The same is true of the hotel, probably due to its being under the same Groupe Floirat family ownership for 50 years. The staff are warm and unpretentious, and it comes as no surprise that so many guests become regulars. It feels like home.
That is to say, a home where Alain Ducasse is in the kitchen cooking up a storm. France’s culinary king has overseen the menu at Rivea, the Byblos’ fine dining restaurant, enacted by head chef Vincent Maillard. Marinated sea bream and aubergine on toast, liberally doused with the house’s unique olive oil, is the go-to dish. In preparation for the anniversary the cellar has been stocked with 1967 vintages.
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My room occupies the top-floor mezzanine above the Jagger’s love nest, and from here after a few too many bottles of Dom you might be tempted to dive three storeys into the blue watery depths below. No doubt the staff here have seen it all before.
Underneath the curving pool and casual bar-restaurant, Le B, the gloriously kitsch Caves du Roy has been packing in the A-listers for five decades. Down here among the palm tree pillars and under glitter balls is a world of pulsating vulgarity where showing off is encouraged. It’s completely at odds with the rest of the hotel, which is discrete and serene.
The Byblos was born out of love, and it’s that commitment to idealism and refusal to compromise that has created this unique and perfect automobile. The hotel’s founder’s infatuation was with a beach-loving bombshell; mine is with the similarly sun-kissed Rolls-Royce Dawn.